Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Rewriting the Style Rules

A change is afoot in the world of fashion. All over the globe, from Caracas to Croydon, a mini-rebellion is taking place among style-conscious females – and it’s gathering strength with each passing day. We are, it seems, sick and tired of being force-fed information about what and who we should be wearing, which celebrities favour which designers and how we, too, can emulate their looks and totter around like an army of Paris Hilton and Victoria Beckham clones in five inch heels and bug-eyed sunglasses.

Turns out, these days we’re far more interested in what each other is wearing instead. Increasingly, a growing number of women (and men!) are using social media and online forums to share their secret style obsessions, posting images of themselves in their favourite outfits on a daily basis and inviting other users to do the same.

It’s not hard to understand why. The woman on the street is so much more accessible and real than the woman on the catwalk or red carpet. She’s probably not a size zero or supernaturally tall, and she certainly doesn’t pay a stylist to make sure she gets on the best dressed lists. By the power of online photo-sharing sites like Flickr and the blogging community, the elitist world of fashion is being turned into a free-for-all which anyone with a camera and an internet connection can contribute to. Never ones to be left behind, the fashion mags are getting on board too, with everyone from More to Grazia making space within their pages for dedicated street style reports.

Now, the phenomenon has even spawned its own coffee table book, What I Wore Today, which collates hundreds of images of women from around the world and where “difference and individuality are celebrated, permission to experiment granted.” What these images share is a disregard for the traditional rules of fashion or fleeting seasonal trends. Combining vintage and thrift with designer pieces, borrowed accessories with charity shop finds, there isn’t a celebrity ‘it’ bag or copycat look in sight. Every outfit is brilliantly, proudly unique.

Is this self-indulgent ‘fashion narcissism’? Or a mighty blow struck by the common woman against a handful of untouchable fashion trendsetters? That’s up to the individual to decide. On the other hand, maybe we should just enjoy it for what it is: the chance to have a good old nosey around other people’s wardrobes – and let others have a peek at ours.

WPR’s Top Five Online Fashion Faves – join to post pics of yourself and check out others’ favourite looks. – log on to pick up tips from Susie Lau, one of fashion’s most influential bloggers, or follow her on Twitter @susiebubble. – a collection of street style photography from New Yorker and former fashion industry insider, Scott Schuman. - more great fashion photography brought to you straight from the streets by Yvan Rodic. Follow him on Twitter @facehunter. – street fashion from Helsinki in Finland, compiled by Liisa Jokinen and Sampo Karjalainen in tribute to Fruits and Street magazines, the pioneers of street fashion photography.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Britain Reaches Boyle-ing Point

I shouldn't admit to this but the stress of watching Susan Boyle on Sunday night nearly sent me into early labour. Would the pressure get to her? Was she a one hit wonder? Would she have had new pearly white Cowell inspired teeth or hair extensions or worse, been Gokked to the max?

Relief all round when I realised that, despite having the eyes of the world on her, Susan Boyle is still Susan Boyle - slighlty barking with an incredible pair of lungs.

It's an interesting PR brief for DADA. What Susan really wants is less - not more. Having Piers Morgan declare that if she doesn't win - he is a donut, will not help her case. We Brits like to back the underdog.

The media are already on the turn. Heat is asking if the right acts are getting through, The Sun is reporting that her warbling is keeping hotel guests awake until gone 2am and the press in general questioned her make-over - before they had even seen the results.

Lie low Boyle. Stay natural - even if that means frizzy and bushy. We fell in love with imperfection and long may that love affair continue.

In the words of CLifford, "This is more about protection than promotion." Couldn't agree more. It would be a crying shame if Britain reaches Boyle-ing point before BGT draws to a close and Cowell goes in search of the X Factor once more.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Come back LS Amery, we need you!

Those of you who watched the TV coverage of the House of Commons on Monday, or read accounts of the furor over the Speaker’s future in yesterday’s papers, may be wondering what the coded references to the Norway Debate were all about?

In my self-appointed role of political bore, let me enlighten you. The name Leo Stennett Amery would have been lost to history were it not for his extraordinary intervention in the House of Commons debate over the disastrous Norwegian campaign, undertaken by allied forces in the early stages of World War Two between April and June 1940. The intervention made his name and, arguably, changed the course of twentieth century history.

Amery did not rise to speak in the debate until the second day, the 8th May 1940, by which time he was intensely frustrated with the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain’s, feeble performance in justifying the Norwegian landings and, more importantly, the distinct lack of leadership in a national crisis. His speech was unremarkable, until the closing statement, which was delivered with a whiplash that has gone down in history. Invoking the words of Cromwell from three hundred years before, Amery, pointing directly at the Prime Minister, declared: “You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”

Amery’s intervention was later described by former Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, as the most powerful climax to a speech he had ever heard. It was crucial in convincing over 40 fellow Conservative MPs to vote against their own Conservative Government in a confidence motion, which led directly to Chamberlain’s removal and the succession of Winston Churchill. The rest, as they say, is history.

I spent yesterday with a group of journalists. Lunch conversation was dominated by MP’s expenses (I’ve never known an ice-breaker like it!). Phrases such as “let down” and “I don’t trust any of them” were freely used. MPs may think they have given the public some ‘blood’ in convincing the Speaker to go, in the name of God or, more likely, their own skins, but I doubt whether the public appetite for reform has been sated. Until more of them start acting like LS Amery, putting country before party and genuinely attempting to reform, without one eye on short-term political advantage, then public anger will not abate.

Oh yes, one last thing. There is another reason for remembering LS Amery today, he was MP for Birmingham Sparkbrook.

Monday, 18 May 2009

As goes Bromsgrove, so goes the nation

I ventured out at the weekend to sniff the mood of the nation over MP’s expenses (actually I was on an emergency nappy run to the local supermarket for my two year old but, in terms of stench, it amounted to pretty much the same thing).

Anyway, I can report that the mood, if you didn’t already know it, is venomous. The short walk from my house to the centre of Bromsgrove takes me past the Conservative Party constituency office, which now has a number of boarded up windows, courtesy of a luddite revenge attack on Friday. By the time I reached the centre of Bromsgrove, I had overheard two separate conversations on the street about MP’s expenses and had witnessed the unfurling of an enormous banner which proclaimed “Julie Out Now.”

This is reference to my local MP, Julie Kirkbride, the wife of Andrew Mackay, who last week was forced to resign from the Conservative front bench. Apparently, Julie and Andy have both been claiming for second homes in each other’s constituencies and have taken the taxpayer for the princely sum of approximately £100,000 so far. Now this is Bromsgrove, a bastion of Middle England. Lord only knows what public feeling is like in Darlington, Blackburn or Smethwick.

What is interesting, from a communications point of view, is how the individual parties are dealing with this. Cameron has remained marginally in front of the story (I’m not going to say he’s doing well, he’s doing just enough) with the swift dispatch of Mackay and the publication on the internet of every expenses claim he can get his hands on. Labour on the other hand, has been leaden-footed and behind the story from the word go.

This amazes me, because the legendary New Labour spin machine, set up by Mandelson and my former colleague at Shandwick, Colin Byrne, was formerly a ruthless beast, dealing swiftly with any individual who threatened to damage the brand. I was working at Shandwick when Ron Davies was ditched for his adventures on Clapham Common and there was barely a murmur of protest from the New Labour footsoldiers, including one of his former advisers. He was damaged goods, he had to go.

So how can Labour get in front of this story again. Well, firstly, the Leader of the Party, the Prime Minister, should announce that he is instructing local constituency parties that any MP found to have been overtly milking the system needs to be de-selected within a three-month timetable, whilst simultaneously calling on the leaders of the other parties to do the same. Borderline cases can be left to the discretion of constituency associations. Secondly, the Prime Minister should announce that, in the interests of Parliamentary democracy, he intends to prorogue Parliament and call a General Election in the autumn. This would enable the Prime Minister to appear statesmanlike and putting country above party. It won’t avert defeat, but it might allow him to go out with his head held a bit higher than is likely in April or May 2010. It might also save some Labour MPs who have acted totally honorably.

The alternative is for the country to limp on for another year with a wounded Government, a damaged Parliament and illegitimate de-selected MPs who have been forced to agree to stand down at the next election. I think we all deserve more than that, but I also think that is exactly what is likely to happen.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

It's not often I'm right but . . .

I had an interesting conversation with a contact of mine last week. His research department (he’s in property) has produced a research report which showed that the property sector and economy as a whole was, excuse my language, on its *rse!

The big question was: does he release the report to the media or suppress it in true Civil Service style? I advised suppression on the basis that three-month old statistics detailing the UK’s economic misery was hardly big news and it wouldn’t do them any good to be seen to drive the sector down any further. Furthermore, I expressed the opinion that the place for the economic story to go next was recovery, glints of light and greenshoots.

Now it’s not often I’m right, but FT readers will note yesterday’s front page proclaiming that the recession is over (well not quite, ‘bottomed out is the phrase’ used) and I intend to enjoy being correct for once – particularly in light of my LDV predictions!

I have been, and my colleagues will verify this, bullish on this one for a while and my confidence only increased further last week when two clients separately told me that estate agents were beginning to complain about a lack of stock for potential buyers (they’re never happy are they?).

Admittedly, I did not expect to see greenshoots this early. My feeling all along has been that the unprecedented fiscal stimulus that has hit the UK, including VAT at 15%, interest rates at historic lows, quantitative easing and a collapsed oil price (although I notice unleaded is creeping back to nearly a £1 a litre despite oil only being at $60 a barrel) would begin to drag us out of this at the back end of the year. Also, I retained a perhaps na├»ve faith that consumption would return to normal levels as consumers, who have put off buying that new microwave or a car, decide that enough is enough and go for a good old splurge.

I am acutely aware that further bad news could snuff out these greenshoots of consumer confidence, but barring a real global pandemic (not a fake one), further massive writedowns by our banks when they report again in the autumn or the four horsemen of the apocalypse riding over the horizon, I think there is genuine reason for cautious optimism.

Print that Mr Thorne (and no you can’t have a copy of the report).

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

What Price Fame?

So, was it all just a sham? Or has five years conducting their relationship under the scorching rays of the media spotlight finally taken its toll? Yes, I’m talking about the recent announcement that Katie Price, AKA page three stunna Jordan, is finally calling time on her marriage to Peter Andre – he of the waxed chest, washboard abs and questionable musical ability.

In the post-match analysis, no doubt every man and his dog will be speculating as to the real reason behind the perma-tanned pair’s parting of ways. But regardless of the conclusion you come to, one fact is undeniable – they understood how to work the media like no other celebrity couple out there. Forget Posh & Becks and their tasteful (read cringeworthy) fashion shoots and increasingly desperate attempts to get us to take them seriously, Katie and Peter courted the media unashamedly from Day One – and they got it down to a fine art. What’s more, their warts-and- all, comi-tragic approach to celebrity has made them an outrageous amount of money in a very short space of time.
Which is why their request that the media “respect their families’ privacy at this difficult time” is a little hard to swallow. Surely the Price family’s privacy was irreparably compromised the moment they chose to invite an entire tv crew into their home to document their every cross word and happy moment? For a couple whose fortune has been amassed almost entirely through selling the mundane minutiae of their private lives to an eager public – be it through the pages of Hello or via their eponymous tv series – they are being uncharacteristically tight-lipped.

Katie, Peter, a word to the wise: don’t bite the hand that feeds you. You owe your very existence to the media machine and the fans that have followed your every move since that first fumble in the jungle – so be careful what you wish for. It might just come true.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Hell's Brief?

According to PR Week, "Chef Ramsay" is in final talks with Phil Hall to handle his personal PR. Forget Hell's Kitchen, Hell's Brief more like.

This is the man who reportedly had a seven year affair with a professional mistress, is in financial trouble, lied about his footballing career and buys in ready meals for his chain of gastro pubs. Not good, on any level.

All this wouldn't be quite so bad if Gordon Ramsay hadn't made the bulk of his fortune by constantly extolling the virtues of being well, Gordon Ramsay. Highly skilled, a god in bed as well as the kitchen, an insightful business-man, fighting fit with the talent to play football for Scotland - Gordon is, according to Gordon at least, quite brilliant.

Well, I've never done celebrity PR - shopping centres, solicitors and supermarkets - yes; super chefs - no. That said, I still have a few ideas for Phil Hall Associates, starting with getting Gordon to whip up and eat up a particularly large piece of humble pie.

Next, I'd ban him from any future episodes of Kitchen Nightmares as I half think this is where the trouble all started. Most episodes seem to heavily centre around some poor failing restaurateur being told by Gordon to be more like Gordon. Especially the Americans. The poor Americans.

Then, I'd ban Tana Ramsay from leaving the house until all the trouble has blown over. So beautiful, so pure, so innocent - every time I see the poor women, I feel a little bit crosser with naughty Gordon and his wandering underpants.

Finally, I'd make sure that he stopped all this jumping up and down business on TV. I get it Gordon, you're fit. You look after your body and take pride in yourself. You have more energy than me - well, so does Timmy Mallet but that didn't stop him from being the second-most hated man in the Antipodean in the last Celebrity Camping extravaganza, did it?

So, good luck Phil. Not sure what he said when he first got the brief but I wouldn't mind guessing the F-Word was in there somewhere.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

It's Pants, Man

"The Apprentice: You're Fired" should have come with a health warning last night. Certainly, I nearly choked on my Ovaltine and rich tea during Philip's farewell interview. The man is delluded. He still thinks Pants Man was a success in marketing terms. Honestly. He does.

His rationale? We are all talking about it and I quote (albeit from memory), "That is what advertising and marketing is all about isn't it?"

Well Philip, no. We are all talking about Swine Flu but none of us wants it. We all talked about The Millennium Dome - but hardly any of us went and when Gerald Ratner called his products "total crap", the whole country talked about it, and promptly stopped shopping there as a direct result.

There is a marked difference between getting people talking about you and getting people buying from you. The old adage, "there is no such thing as bad publicity" has been proved wrong time and time again. And once, by me.

On my last maternity leave, clearly having far too much time on my hands, I went to war with baby equipment retailer, "Two Left Feet." I put all of my media know-how and contacts into use and started blogging, joining mums forums, writing press releases and the like - all in a bid to get my money back from the cowboys. They ignored me so I went to Watchdog. Clearly the hormones were at play here as the results of my actions didn't actually dawn on me until I was on air. No matter, I got my goods. However, I wasn't alone in my hatred of "Two Left Feet" and its dodgy business dealings. The company was back on Watchdog a while later and went into administration earlier this year, blaming "bad publicity" for its decline.

Ok, there was more at play here but all this goes to show - there is more to effective PR than filling a client's press cuttings file with any old rubbish, coverage for the sake of coverage in other words. Good PR translates to sales, it demonstrates a return on investment, it has a positive effect on the bottomline. Plain and simple.

Brendan Behan once said, "There is no such thing as bad publicity - except your own obituary." True, but bad publicity has also led to the obituaries of a fair few companies and, unless Philip returns to reality very soon, Pants Man could be all that's in his.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement is it?

The perils of blogging are becoming ever clearer to me. My prediction that the Government will not intervene to save LDV is followed only days later by, wait for it, Government intervention!

Whilst I am glad that jobs will be saved, it is hard to view this as a ringing endorsement for the company. The facts are as follows: the Government will provide a short-term bridging loan of £5 million over a 30-day period while new owners Weststar get their finances in place. The key word here is loan. The Government wants its money back and quick. It’s not interested in equity (unlike with the banks) and it’s not interested in running it as a business. Labour Governments have been down this path before with a nationalised car industry, pouring more and more money into a bottomless pit, and they don’t want to go back again. Effectively the Government is saying: “This is your last chance. If you can’t make it work with Weststar, then don’t come running to us.”

One final thought. I do wonder whether political pragmatism is playing a part here. The Government is caught between a rock and a hard place. Do nothing and it effectively sacrifices half a dozen marginal Birmingham constituencies at an election which is currently scheduled for less than a year away. Jump in with both feet and it leaves itself wide open to Conservative charges of wasting public money (which we haven’t got) and a return to the dark days of the 70s and the spectre of highly unionised workforces in nationalised industries voting to strike in crowded car parks.

I don’t see Tony Woodley of the TGWU as a modern day Red Robbo, but the Government will be desperate to avoid that sort of television in our living rooms over the winter months.

After the swine flu outbreak can anyone doubt the place of Twitter?

For a large chunk of the population, Twitter was the first place they heard about the swine flu outbreak. In fact, on the same day that the story broke on TV, twittering journalists were already placing bets on who would get “Aporkalypse” or “Snoutbreak” into headlines the following day. Is this proof that Twitter is becoming the communication tool of choice?

The general public is getting more and more impatient – after all, we are used to getting anything we want, when we want it (and that means now!). We treat communicating as just another consumer commodity. Thanks to the internet, we can get everything in an instant – from our weekly shop to one off, handmade handbags. Importantly, this applies to information too – we want the news straight away and increasingly we want to know everything about a person, especially if that person happens to be a celebrity. The difference now is that we don’t want to waste our time searching on Google or reading websites, we want it to be interactive and sent directly to us.

This is where Twitter comes in and like all trends, some people love it and some people hate it. Whatever your feelings, the swine flu outbreak has shown us that Twitter isn’t going away. Within seconds of the outbreak, Twitter was receiving 20 tweets about the topic, every ten seconds. Whilst newspapers were getting their heads around a potential pandemic, Twitter had already gone long past red alert, with more jokers than scare mongers (typical tweets include “at what stage in the symptoms do victims start feeling pinky and perky?”)

There have been accusations that Twitter was doing more to misinform than calm the masses – but can’t the same be said of traditional media? After all, the red tops were happy to claim that this really was the end of all humanity. With such a huge news story which affects the whole population, the real demand behind Twitter has been revealed - like a good consumer, you try to digest as much as you can possibly handle whilst passing on the need for others to do just the same. Trends might shift again as we come out of the credit crunch, but until that time the PR and media industry can’t ignore the place of Twitter.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Brilliant Insight!

We recently had a brilliant training course from Paul Bramwell of Brilliant Media (how apt) who gave us a comprehensive overview of how the media and advertising spend is changing, from Facebook to Twitter and beyond.

Fascinating, but it did make me feel like a dinosaur. For a man who still likes to feel the crisp pink pages of the FT each morning (you can’t beat a bit of Martin Wolfe) it was a glimpse into an uncomfortable future.

I did however take the opportunity to ask Paul a question that has worried me for a while. Those of us who became obsessed by the recent Presidential election, eagerly awaiting news of half point swings in Rasmussen tracking polls in Pennsylvania (I know, I’m boring you don’t need to tell me), got most of our information from either the Washington Post or New York Times websites.

Two more contrasting business models it was hard to find. The Washington Post provides totally free content, the New York Times, on the other hand, until recently utilised a controversial subscription-only model for any information beyond the home page. The ‘Paper of Record’ has now backed down, but the debate over charging for online news continues to rage, not least because so many newspapers in the States, notably the Chicago Tribune, have filed for bankruptcy protection and are struggling to find new revenue streams. In fact, there has been a call only this week for newspaper owners across the US to band together and insist on a subscription-only service on the basis that they can’t keep giving news away “for free”.

So, is subscription-only the future? “Absolutely not” says Paul. “Even Rupert Murdoch says that you cannot charge for web content and if anybody knows how to extract cash from something it’s him.”

So there it is the definitive answer, subscription-only content is not an option to save the newspaper industry, says Paul (and Rupert).

Goodbye BBC Good Homes

When the news last week that BBC Good Homes is to close after its July issue reached us, I have to say I was truly shocked and saddened.

Established some 11 years ago now, BBC Good Homes has consistantly been in the top five home interest magazines, at least in our clients' eyes, but due to falling circulation (although I don't consider 95,000 particularly low) and reduced advertising revenue it will cease to publish from next month.

Covering everything from abuyer guides to ask the experts and monthly room inspiration, I always felt that this title had it all for the homeowner needing some reliable advice and information on the latest products out there. Add to this the support lended by the 'BBC' brand, and it was one of a few titles that I would actually buy for myself as a consumer.

The shock of hearing the news really was a wake up call. Depsite hearing about how the credit crunch is affecting all areas of our lives, there are some things you expect to remain constant, but with the struggle to keep advertisers on board and keep consumers interested in their favourite magazines, rather than relying on the internet, I'm afraid to say that BBC Good Homes may not be the only casualty for the homes and lifestyle sector.

There will certainly be more competition between brands, and the PR agencies, to gain that all-important editorial space, but it highlights just how important it is for us to understand and embrace the digital age more and more. Magazine webpages, social networking sites and Twitter are all buzz words flying around right now, but it seems that these tools will become just as crucial to PR campaigns as press releases, but I for one will always enjoy the feeling of opening a crisp, new magazine and curling up with a cup of tea to enjoy.

Farewell BBC Good Homes, and hope to see the editorial team very soon.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Pee Off Gail

How to win friends and influence people by Gail Adams, Director of Immigration and Border control FOR THE MIDLANDS who told delegates at a Home Office conference last week, that Birmingham smells of urine.

Firstly, it doesn’t. And secondly, even if it did – why would anyone announce such an opinion at a conference in the very city about which they were talking?

More worryingly, Gail's line of defence is that she lives in Birmingham, is a former Birmingham City Council Executive- and the conference was held in the city purely at her insistence.

Well thanks Gail. Hard to know who came off worse – Birmingham or you? Fair to say you offended your fellow guests, your neighbours and indeed, an entire city.

Hardly great PR for Birmingham either. At a time when the city is battling the affects of the economic downturn – we hardly need you on your soap box, trying to clean up Birmingham. That operation happened a good while back and gave us Bullring, Brindley Place, The Mail Box, Fort Dunlop, The Custard Factory, Hotel du Vin, Millennium Point – not to mention regeneration schemes in Digbeth, The Jewellery Quarter and Eastside and much, much more.

In my humble opinion, every resident of Birmingham should start to do a bit of PR for place, starting at the top (civil servants like Gail - for example). So, I shall set a precedent. I live and work in Birmingham because I like it. I like the where it is, in the middle of the country, minutes from the motorway network and close enough to other major UK cities (and a good many international ones too).

I like the surrounding countryside and I like the shops, theatres, restaurants and museums. My son likes the Sea Life centre and I shouldn’t admit it, but I like “doing the weather” at the BBC’s Midlands HQ in the Mailbox.

Most of all, I like the people. I work in PR in Birmingham but never come across any media luvvies – just down to earth, honest, hard working folk, like the rest of the city’s inhabitants. Makes you wonder why Gail lives here really. And that brings me right back to how this article began, with a headline that pretty much sums up what I am feeling right now.